CULT CLASSIC: Heathers (1989)

Heathers (USA, 1989)
Directed by Michael Lehmann
Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk

When it comes to American high school films, the 1980s belonged to John Hughes. Through Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Hughes perfected a sweet, light-hearted and nostalgic look at adolescence which touched the hearts of a generation. But like many trendsetters before him, it wasn't long before the master's work was widely imitated and devalued until it became an out-of-touch caricature. Such efforts were often enjoyable, but we never believed that we were seeing real teenagers on screen - and in the case of Hughes' later works, that was very often true.In the midst of all this pastel-shaded gaiety, Heathers comes at you like a fizzling flask of vitriol, burning through those pleasant but deceptive veils to reveal the dark and bitchy underbelly of high school life. To this day it remains one of the darkest, funniest and edgiest comedies of the 1980s, which will make you howl with laughter even as you squirm in discomfort. While not an easy watch, it has lost none of its potency in 23 years, and is perhaps second only to Lindsay Anderson's If.... as the greatest high school film of all time.While the John Hughes stable of films were often accused of being conservative, Heathers' production history suggests a work of great artistic ambition. Daniel Waters wrote the script with the intention of Stanley Kubrick directing it - a huge ambition for a first-time screenwriter. Waters believed that Kubrick was the only director who could get away with a three-hour film, and the only person who could make the definitive high school film, to go with the definitive sci-fi film in 2001.First-time director Michael Lehmann, who had made a splash on the cult circuit with his short film Beaver Gets A Boner, got the gig of directing Heathers through his friendship with producer Denise di Novi. Di Novi was hot property in Hollywood in the late-1980s, having worked with Tim Burton on his hit comedy Beetlejuice, starring Winona Ryder. Ryder was offered the part after the success of Beetlejuice, proclaiming it to be the best script she had ever read. The rest, as they say, is history.The look of Heathers is a very conscious departure from the John Hughes stable. The opening scenes, where the Heathers and Veronica are introduced, are a clear parody of Hughes, with bright and welcoming pastel shades which become darker as things move on. There is a dreamy feel to the opening act with soft focus around the edges of the screen, with Lehmann seeking to achieve the same hypnotic, discomforting effect that David Lynch did in Blue Velvet. Little by little the colours grow harsher and darker, culminating in a dream sequence which rivals Suspiria in its luridness; the prominent use of red and Ryder's passing resemblance to Jessica Harper put these sections aesthetically close to Dario Argento.The visuals of Heathers play an important part in the film's dismantling of preconceptions that high school is the happiest time of your life. It depicts the various cliques at Westerburg High (the jocks, the nerds and of course the Heathers) with the perfect balance of the real and the extreme. Even if the bullies or the bitches we encountered weren't quite so hideous or self-absorbed, there is more than enough truth in their characterisations to make us shudder and recoil. The uptight, immaculate look of the Heathers perfectly encapsulates all those teenage girls who played on the affections and fears of others to hide their own insecurities.The script of Heathers is nothing short of terrific, with scenes and sequences that are as good, if not slightly better, than anything Quentin Tarantino was turning out in the same period. Many of its one-liners have entered into cinema history, such as Heather Chandler's sarcastic retort, "Fuck me gently with a chainsaw", when Veronica suggests they hang out with different kinds of people. Some of the lines are hilariously surreal, like Ram's father exclaiming "I love my dead gay son" as Ram lies in an open coffin in his American football kit. But others are so scabrous that they make even hardened pros wince - for instance, JD's comment that "Kurt and Ram had nothing left to offer the school except for date rapes and AIDS jokes."The best lines in Heathers are those which tap right into the teenage angst and low self-esteem of the characters. Early on in the film, the Heathers are chatting in the girls' toilets. Heather Duke, who suffers from bulimia, is teased by the girls with phrases like "don't you feel the urge to purge?" When she finally gives in and starts throwing her guts up, Heather Chandler rolls her eyes and remarks dismissively: "bulimia is so 1987". Later on in the film, Veronica writes a long passage in her diary which begins "My teen angst bullshit has a body count" and concludes: "Are we going to prom or to hell?". Lines like these are stupendously inventive in conveying the pressures of high school and the hypocrisies of the in-crowd.The film is utterly merciless towards its characters and the audience. Every time you think the film has reached its limits, and drawn a line in the sand, it takes a full stride over that line and pulls you over head first. It doesn't take long to adjust to the tone of Heathers in and of itself, but the jokes become darker and more inventive with every turn. One of the best examples of this comes when JD and Veronica are slumped in the car having just killed Kurt and Ram. Veronica takes the cigarette lighter and applies it to her hand in self-flagellation; JD stops her, before leaning over to light his cigarette from her smouldering palm.Just as Monty Python's Life of Brian is a film about blasphemy rather than a blasphemous film, so Heathers is a film which mocks the media presentation of teenage suicide rather than teenage suicide itself. It handles the subject with a ruthless intelligence, showing how the act of suicide can produce bizarre psychological reactions, turning enemies into martyrs and uniting completely different kinds of people. It also shows how parents and the media approach the issue in a way which is ultimately irrelevant or ineffective to the needs of the children. In its handling of a difficult and complex subject matter in a way which is both visceral and stimulating, Heathers is on a par with We Need To Talk About Kevin - and on that front, there is no higher praise.Although it seems odd to say it, Heathers comes across as quite a moral film. The film entertains the fantasy of all frustrated or bullied teenagers, namely wishing death upon their enemies, and shows the central character coming through triumphant by being true to herself and asserting her own way of treating people. It is a coming-of-age film insofar as Veronica endures by reaching a point of maturity, where she need no longer entertain such evil desires.From this perspective, JD is the physicalisation of Veronica's desires or temptations. He acts like the little devil on her shoulder who is at once repulsive and irresistible. JD gives her what she wants in terms of affection and satisfaction, but at the cost of losing control of her own destiny, and Veronica's eventual defeat of JD is her recognition that she doesn't have to be a bitch or a psycho to survive in life. There is a comparison with Let The Right One In in how the film uses an outsider character to represent the burgeoning, adolescent aggression of the characters, with similarly destructive results.There has been some debate over the ending of Heathers since the film was first released. The ending Lehmann originally envisioned involved Veronica blowing up the entire school and the cast re-uniting in heaven at a massive prom. In hindsight this would have been a little fanciful, treading too close to the 'Christmas in Heaven' sequence from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. The ending as it stands is perfect, completing Veronica's defeat of both her demons and the Heathers, ushering in a new phase of her life.Heathers is a terrifically dark comedy which remains unrivalled in the pantheon of American high school films. The performances are first-class, with Winona Ryder in terrific form as Veronica and Christian Slater channelling Jack Nicholson from The Witches of Eastwick. Their great work is complimented with Waters' outstanding script and Lehmann's sharp direction, all of which conspires to create a true, dark-hearted masterpiece. One thing is for certain - after seeing Heathers, you'll never look at high school the same way again.

Verdict: Subversive, scabrous, shocking and stupendous